Harlem When It Sizzled

Harlem When It Sizzled
December 1982

By David Levering Lewis
Knopf, $17.95; Vintage, $7.95 paper

THIS WAS HARLEM, 1900–1950
By Jervis Anderson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.95

Reading David Lewis’s and Jervis Anderson’s histories of Harlem sent echoes of Countee Cullen through my head. Those with Black Lit 101 in their upbringing will probably recall Cullen’s “Heritage.” For those more culturally deprived, that’s the one where Cullen waxes pathetic over whether Christian conversion has cost him an African soul. Put Harlem on my mind in place of the Motherland and similar con­cerns go off in my head. Only unlike Cullen I’m not worried for my soul. No, what I’m missing on account of dope, desegregation, and the new diasporan gospel, namely as­similation, is the Harlem they used to call Black Mecca. That Harlem ain’t what it used to be is obviously no news: it’s been the nation’s handiest model of urban ethnic ruin for damn near three decades. Understanding that black folk once considered the place about as close as they were going to come to the promised land in this motherfucker here takes some leap of faith — especially if your fix on its present state is somewhere between gentrification and cultural decay.

Lewis and Anderson allowed me to con­nect with the mythic Harlem my mother grew up hearing about. In her day, says Mom, the living knew they wanted to go to Harlem just as surely as the dead knew they wanted to go to heaven. Still, after reading When Harlem Was in Vogue and This Was Harlem, 1900–1950, I’m less nostalgic for Harlem as the promised land than as a striv­ing black community that once upon a time bristled with the daily discourse of poets, politicians, musicians, entrepreneurs, and day workers. If the geography of segregation was meant to keep blacks and whites out of each other’s sight, it also made the black communities my parents’ generation grew up in places where Afro-American ambitions weren’t stifled by poverty before they even met up with overt racism. Principally be­cause the most brilliant talents of the race didn’t have any place else to go. Locked in the community, they kept a stiff upper lip and passed dignity around.

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Jervis Anderson’s look at Harlem from 1900 to 1950 arrived on the heels of David Lewis’s tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, so I wonder how often these two tripped over each other doing research in the Schomburg collection or the National Archives. They certainly managed to run up on the same reference material. (In fact a few bon mots I’d thought were Lewis’s turned up in Anderson too, spliced in from some other wise guy.) Lewis’s book is a dashing, pithy read, Anderson’s a long-winded tome. After gliding through Lewis’s catty, chatty skeins of sarcasm and scholarship, Anderson’s more prolix sophistries only benumb. This pollyannaish bit on Joe Louis being a prime example: “During what remained of his life, however — as in much of what had gone be­fore — Louis showed by his conduct that his spirit was not confined to ‘the colored sec­tion’ but inhabited broader areas of Ameri­can experience which were shared by all men and women of civility and good will.” Brother, that’s a mouthful and not too easy to swallow either.

The one major plus of Anderson’s book is that wading through his section on Harlem’s origins will put you on a more proletarian footing than Lewis’s exposé. Lewis does such a diverting job of damning the effete snobs you hardly notice how peripheral the masses are. And what with the Talented Tenth and all running around forging the conscience of the race in the smithy of their souls, you kinda forget everybody in Harlem wasn’t a poet or a race leader back then. While I wouldn’t say Lewis lacks a common touch, he can’t be said to do much with it.

What he does do brilliantly is bring to life the legends who made the Harlem Renais­sance happen. In the ’20s, Harlem emerged as the political and cultural locus of Afro-American urban life, the stronghold of the­ race’s best and brightest. Within an intricate mural of this burgeoning black universe, Lewis sketches revealing narratives about the interactions and motivations of the com­munity’s most prominent artistic and politi­cal figures. The glittering roster of racial icons aren’t names easily encountered with­out awe — particularly if you’re a contem­porary black artist, academic, or activist: Du Bois. Garvey. Hurston. Robeson. Star play­ers in a cast of thousands.

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Lewis is provocative because he doesn’t hesitate to reduce these bronze figures to human scale — or even knock them down to size. In this sense, he has ushered in a genre new to the relatively genteel tradition of Afro-American belles lettres. Namely, liter­ary gossip. In some quarters of black in­telligentsia, Lewis’s divulgences of political backbiting, color-caste snobbery, and pederasty have brought him under fire for indiscretion if not blasphemy. Among the juicier of his intimations is that Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Har­lem dandies Richard Nugent and Harold Jackmon liked each other more than they liked girls. Among the more dumbfounding is the revelation that protean egghead W.E.B. Du Bois married his befuddled, virginal daughter Yolande off to a known homo­sexual (Cullen) — and then apologized for her failings on the honeymoon.

While there may be some truth to the charge that Lewis only threw this stuff in to spice up the narrative, scholarship seems like his primary motivation. For all its tawdry tidbits, his cunningly phrased book contains the only portrait of the Renaissance that doesn’t shy away from addressing the petty but crippling conflicts among Har­lem’s politicos and social hierarchies in the ’20s. Besides which, there’s simply too much evidence of scrupulous research. He appar­ently read not only all the poetry and fiction of the ’20s but also every scrap of magazine and newsprint and personal correspondence he could dig up. Not to mention six years interviewing witnesses. What he’s managed to do is separate the myth of Harlem from its history without making the truth read any less glamorously than the legends.

Consider Harlem’s ’20s as a kind of funked-up Weimar Republic for bloods, and you’ll have a grasp on why that era has gone down in Afro-American lore and literature as a time of grand cultural renaissance. Which is to say, one where radical trends in Afro-American art and politics converged with the black bourgeoisie in a bacchanal of strident nationalism, new money, and bohe­mian revelry. While whites who’ve written on Harlem’s ’20s have nostalgically recalled its carnal nightspots and darky entertain­ments, Lewis describes how Harlem’s black population saw their community as an oasis of racial salvation: “Quarreling bitterly among themselves about the right road to deliverance, Garveyites, neo-Bookerites, so­cialists, utopian cultists, and all manner of integrationists shared in equal measure what might be called Harlem nationalism — the emotional certainty that the very dynamism of the ‘World’s Greatest Negro Metropolis’ was somehow a guarantee of ultimate racial victory. To a remarkable degree that collective optimism touched ev­eryone — the humble cleaning woman, the illiterate janitor, even the criminal ele­ment.”

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Some of the more uppity brothers and sisters of the day went around proclaiming themselves the New Negroes. They weren’t about to take shit off the white boy, and they tended to act and dress the part. Black postwar militancy and spanking new brownstones gave this vanguard its initial social daring; the “Red Summer” of 1919 tempered it with political pragmatism. Home from the French front, all the brave brothers, like those in Harlem’s valorous 15th National Guard, were talking about turning in some of those dead Germans and decorations for jobs and justice or picking up the gun. The response of more than a few racist white citizens to this rebellious if ro­mantic threat was a bucket of blood — the Red Summer — a nationwide orgy of mob violence against blacks that rampaged through two dozen cities and left thousands lynched or burned out of their homes. As planned, this pogrom cured other survivors suffering from pre-Newtonian (Huey, that is) delusions of revolutionary suicide. What it didn’t quell was Afro-American demands for the kind of social and economic gains anticipated as payment-in-kind for wartime patriotism.

In the aftermath of the Red Summer, moderate black leadership faced the problem of devising political strategies that were both vociferous and nonaggressive. An elitist cadre of liberal-arts damaged Afro-Ameri­can intellectuals assumed the task of trans­forming this pragmatic paradox into praxis. Foremost among them was William Ed­wards Burghardt Du Bois — W.E.B. to you — living embodiment of the nascent NAACP; editor and chief propagandist of the organization’s influential organ, Crisis (under Du Bois’s editorship it regularly sold 100,000 copies monthly — astounding in an age of predominant black illiteracy, astound­ing, in fact, today); and author of The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of essays that kindled intellectual ambition in a generation of young black artists and academics.

Du Bois’s persuasive pamphleteering had almost singlehandedly rallied black men into the First World War — just as the feisty black brain trust’s lobbying to integrate the American armed forces had eventually won blacks the right to serve. (Imagine that­ — back then brothers had to beg their way onto the front line. So thank god for integration, right?) Yet, for all his appeal to the masses to sacrifice life and limb for the advance­ment of the race, Du Bois was no populist. As formulator of the notorious Talented Tenth doctrine, W.E.B. believed equality should first be granted to worthy Ivy League educated blacks like himself. This dincty delusion put him at loggerheads with the ideologies of the three other leading black political strategists of his time: first with Booker T. Washington’s plan to create a separate-but-equal class of Afro-American yeomen (a dream that inspired legions of southern black academics years after his death in 1905, and equally enthralled the patrician hearts of white philanthropists); then with Marcus Garvey’s African repatriation movement and A. Philip Randolph’s Black Bolshevikism (an ideology which got Randolph branded “one of the most danger­ous men in America” by J. Edgar Hoover, so you figure he must have been doing something righteous).

Debate between these factions, and espe­cially between Garvey and Du Bois, often got more mutually destructive than constructively critical. The barbed exchanges Lewis digs up between these two are hilarious, if embarrassing in the extreme. Du Bois once wrote an article branding Garvey either “Lunatic or Traitor.” Garvey’s reply to that was that he didn’t have to ask whether the “cross-breed, Dutch-French­-Negro Editor” was a traitor. For punish­ment Garvey recommended horsewhipping. Common in the Du Bois camp was the revulsion expressed by Robert Bagnall, who described Garvey as a “Jamaican Negro of unmixed stock, squat, stocky, fat and sleek.” ’Course if that sounds like high yellow hi­jinks at their worst, Garvey’s arguments for a pure black race purged of its blue-vein aristocracy aren’t much closer to unity in the community.

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Controversy rages to this day about how much of a hand the Talented Tenth’s leader­ship had in the downfall of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which at its peak claimed a membership worldwide of two million. The evidence Lewis presents about Du Bois and other black moderates asking to enlist in the government’s cam­paign against Garvey is sickening stuff. But as Lewis also notes, J. Edgar Hoover had already assigned a specially recruited Uncle Tom to Garvey, and both the British govern­ment and the United Fruit Company had asked for U.S. intervention to curb Garvey’s rabble-rousing in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Whatever the backstage machinations, Garvey’s trumped-up tax fraud conviction and deportation in 1925 left Du Bois’s Tal­ented Tenth a clear shot at mandating the destiny of black America. Or at least the destiny of those Afro-Americans with col­lege degrees or white philanthropists. This perspective gave them a comprehension of racism that was narrow, selfish, and skewed. “The error of black leaders like Du Bois,” Lewis writes, “transcended skin color; they were rebels in America only to the degree and duration of their exclusion from it.” To the Tenth’s Oxford-educated aesthete Alain Locke, for example, the key to racial harmony was interracial elitism: “The only safe­guard for mass relations in the future must be provided in the carefully enlightened minorities of both race groups.”

Yet for all their selfishness when it came to race and caste, the Tenth’s leadership made remarkable gains for blacks in higher education. At a time when many black col­leges were generously endowed based on their adherence to Booker T. Washington’s vocational training program, Du Bois and crew gained economic parity for black liberal arts schools. Behind this lobbying lay the belief that only through educational ac­culturation would the barriers to racial ad­vancement be swept away. To this end, the NAACP and the Urban League enlisted culture as the first line of defense after chari­table WASP guilt and circumspect Jewish benevolence. (Lewis throws his two cents into the ever-prickly matter of black-Jewish relations by producing evidence that the early 20th century Jewish leaders viewed blacks as a lower-on-the-totem-pole buffer between themselves and American anti-­Semitism. Not exactly a novel notion in the black community.) Regardless of motiva­tion, such patronage gave the NAACP and the Urban League the wherewithal (and the time) to devote themselves to their dream: they would bring about integration by prov­ing how sophisticated they were.

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— 3 —

The artsy wing of the Harlem Renais­sance was Charles Johnson’s brainchild. Johnson, editor and chief sociologist of the Urban League’s publication, Opportunity, understood that in the lynch-mad ’20s art was the only haven of opportunity for blacks. Johnson, says Lewis, “gauged more accurately than any other Afro-American intellectual the scope and depth of the na­tional drive to ‘put the nigger in his place’ after the war, to keep him out of the officers corps, out of labor unions and skilled jobs, out of the North and quaking for his very existence in the South — and out of politics everywhere. Johnson found that one area alone — probably because of its im­plausibility — had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down re­garding a place in the arts… it was left to the Afro-American elite to win what as­similation it could through copyrights, con­certs, and exhibitions.”

Opportunity’s May 1925 literary awards dinner put art on the barricades in the race war. White notables there to shore up the ranks included judges Fannie Hurst, Eugene O’Neill, Alexander Woollcott, Van Wyck Brooks, and Clement Wood. Among the win­ners, prophetically, were Countee Cullen, Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, E. Franklin Frazier, and Eric Walrond. Publicity from these awards brought publishing offers from major houses, and as Johnson hoped, attention from well-heeled whites. Support for the New Negro literature became highly fash­ionable, its authors’ presence at downtown soirees de rigueur. The Lost Generation hoped New Negro blood would bring joy to a Caucasian race in its death throes.

Given proper encouragement, some black authors were more than happy to liven up the wake. A lot of black fiction from the ’20s is unreadable today because it was geared to the tastes of such white primitivists as Carl Van Vechten or — like the writing of Du Bois’s Sorbonne-grad girl friday — it suffered from class preciousness. Lewis critically ex­amines the stellar exceptions to these ten­dencies: Nella Larsen’s near-forgotten nov­els of psychic unmasking, Quicksand and Passing; Rudolph Fisher’s Harlem satires; George Schuyler’s comic sci-fi treatment of American color-mania, Black No More; Eric Walrond’s Tropic Death; Langston Hughes’s The Ways of the White Folks, and Jean Toomer’s Cane. Published in 1923, Cane instantly won praise as the most sophisticated work of fiction ever written by an Afro-American and also as a major piece of experimental modern writing. Paul Ro­senfeld ranked Toomer with Joyce and Proust, while critics as diverse as Allen Tate, Sherwood Anderson, Waldo Frank, and Kenneth Burke went equally gaga. A collage of poems, episodic sketches, short stories, and drama, Cane is an evocative rendering of a black pastoral South doomed to extinc­tion and a black Urban North characterized by schizzy surreality. It is also one of the few books by an Afro-American male that seri­ously addresses the psyches of black female characters.

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The book’s rescue from obscurity by the ’60s Black Arts Movement is an irony Toomer probably wouldn’t have ap­preciated: the author of Cane, you dig, never wanted to be known as a black author. A surviving letter to his publishers upbraids them for calling him a “promising Negro writer,” and goes on to say, “If my relation­ship with you is to be what I’d like it to be, I must insist that you never use such a word, such a thought again.” Well, la-de-dah. The critical success of Cane drew Toomer into the Lost Generation’s inner circle, company more to his liking. Alfred Stieglitz and Geor­gia O’Keeffe became his friends (O’Keeffe’s biographer hints of a short affair) as did Marianne Moore, Edmund Wilson, and salon maven Mabel Dodge (with whom Lewis suggests a strange sexual liaison). But if all this charismatic genius makes Toomer sound fast on his way to one helluva literary career, think again. Or better yet, think Gurdjieff. After a mesmerizing encounter with the Russian mystic, Toomer became a zealot and never published again.

Like Toomer, Claude McKay is generally recognized as one of the Renaissance’s star products. And also like Toomer, McKay spent hardly any time in the thick of it. Sailing to Russia in 1923, the roustabout Jamaican emigre spent six months there as the black toast of the Bolsheviks, then a decade traveling Europe and North Africa. His contacts with the Harlem movement were maintained through correspondence and the publication of his poetry and fiction. McKay’s politics were as contradictory as Toomer’s racial identifications. The most politically educated Renaissance writer chose to live more like a free spirit than an engagé rebel and was a Socialist who espoused Garveyite nationalism — even though he found Garvey’s central vision of African redemption “puerile.” Which in itself may not be surprising, since as a Ja­maican in exile McKay longed for the days of British paternalism. Equally confusing is the fact that while McKay was, for a time, co-editor of Max Eastman’s The Liberator, he despised propaganda. His literary output was consistent with his political vacillations. The anti-propagandist wrote some of the most biting protest verse in the language —­ Churchill ripped off McKay’s Red Summer–­inspired “If We Must Die” for a wartime speech — while the man who left Harlem to escape its “sex and poverty” and “hot, syn­copated fascination” and “color conscious­ness” shamelessly sensationalized all that tawdry stuff in his novels, which are perhaps the worst examples of the Harlem primitivist school.

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As Lewis tells it, the young black writers who did hang out in Harlem during the ’20s probably had more fun than either grumpy McKay or zonked-out Toomer. Being younger, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and their peers took to Harlem’s fast lane as often as they took to their type­writers. They mockingly referred to themselves, in Hurston’s coinage, as the Nig­gerati, and upon occasion left their elders aghast. Fire, a one-shot collaboration, brought hateful reviews from Talented Tenth guardians disgusted by its celebra­tions of black street life and folklore. Fire represented the younger writers’ declaration of independence from the effete tradition of black literature favored by the Tenth. For Hughes and Hurston especially, life in the Black Bottom outranked life on Sugar Hill as source material. Though not just because life in the lowlands was more interesting — as literature it moved more product among a white audience looking for Negro exotica.

Well provided for by white patrons, they could afford to disrespect their elders and revel in rebellion and raunch. Charlotte Ma­son — Hughes, Hurston, and McKay called her “Godmother” — was a wacky Park Ave­nue widow of means who had thrown her lot in with the “Negro cause” to help save the world’s primitives from contamination by Western civilization. Ironically, her chief bursar and head talent scout, Alain Locke — ­she called him her “precious Brown boy” — ­couldn’t get civilized by the West fast enough. Oxford’s first black Rhodes Scholar spent his summers soaking in the museums and spas of Europe. Occasionally Mason worried that Locke’s overweaned intellect would cause him to lose his racial in­heritance on the “slippery pond of civiliza­tion.” But Locke and Mason learned to ex­ploit each other with tolerance: she because he secured her the patronship of Hughes, Hurston, McKay, and sculptor Richmond Barthé; he because her dollars allowed him to influence these bohemian welfare cases.

In return, artists were required to write fawning poems and pay house calls. Hurston fell into the role with gusto, says Lewis, “delighting the old lady with ethnic capers and ‘coon’ stories that would have been the envy of Joel Chandler Harris.” Even wild­man McKay wrote picaresque narratives ex­tolling the primitive. Prized pet Langston Hughes got ousted from Godmother’s little acre when his muse drew him closer to the proletariat. An anti-capitalist Christmas poem he published in New Masses in 1931 so upset Mason that he couldn’t get a chas­tened shuffle in edgewise. Soon, though, Hughes would have company; he wasn’t go­ing to be the only Renaissance man to find himself out on his ass in Depression America.

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With the country declared an economic disaster area, racy Negro literature got un­fashionable, and the sources of its patronage dried up. But it was a while before the Renaissance artistes found their mis­fortunes coinciding with those of less elo­quent brethren and sistren on the breadlines. Hughes, for example, following his banishment from Mason’s fold, toured Haiti and Cuba on a Harmon Foundation grant. A year later he joined a boatload of young black Com symps and sailed to Rus­sia, where all aboard had been invited to star in a Soviet anti-slavery musical(!). (This project got stymied when the Soviets dis­covered that not all Afro-Americans could carry a tune as well as their beloved Paul Robeson.)

Inevitably the economics and politics of the ’30s drastically reordered the Talented Tenth’s program. Du Bois embraced a con­fusing new policy of socialism abroad and separatism at home that got him booted out of the NAACP. The organization’s presiding leadership lost two potentially prestigious civil rights cases — the Scottsboro Boys’ and Angelo Herndon’s — to the Communists because of caste snobbery. As the economic and political state of black America grew dimmer, aristocratic integration schemes seemed like the product of minds more out to lunch than merely highfalutin.

Even as late as 1933, NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson could write, “A little bit more here and a little bit more there and the dam will break and the waters will no longer be segregated.” If Johnson believed racism only a nudge away from oblivion — ­well, he obviously didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Because, as Lewis observes, Harlem’s impoverished majority was hardly living a stone’s throw from Utopia: “For Afro-American urban dwellers the more things changed, the more they worsened. Despite its vaunted Renaissance and distinguished residents, Harlem was no exception. In this ‘city within a city’ almost 50 per cent of the families were out of work, yet a mere 9 per cent of them received government relief jobs. The community’s single medical facility, Harlem General Hos­pital, with 273 beds and 50 bassinets, served 200,000 Afro-Americans. The syphilis rate was nine times higher than white Manhat­tan’s; the tuberculosis rate was five times higher; two black mothers and infants died for every white mother and infant.”

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 — 4 —

For Jervis Anderson, Harlem begins not with Du Bois but with how your average brother and sister got up there in the first place. Harlem’s transformation from a haven for wealthy white New Yorkers into a black community is, in Anderson’s nar­rative, a story of tragicomic intrigue. New York City’s black population had been on the move uptown since the early 1800s, pushed out by every hostile immigrant group or business interest in need of space. The 1890s found most bloods settled in the Tenderloin, from the Twenties to the low Sixties on the West side, which quartered moneyed blacks, southern immigrants, and a redlight district known as Black Bohemia. Two catastrophes in the first years of the century gave blacks the boot from there: the destruction of the Tenderloin for Penn Sta­tion, with its resultant commercial-property landgrab, and a mad dog police-led riot in Hell’s Kitchen. After those two throwdowns, blacks packed up and made out for the West Nineties quick.

What opened the gorgeous brownstones and wide boulevards of Harlem to this ex­odus was a combination of white greed and a hustling young black realtor named Phillip Payton. As legend has it, Payton ran up on two white landlords of adjacent buildings, in heated discussion. To settle the score, one gave Payton his property to fill with blacks. “I was successful in managing this house,” Payton recalled later, “and after a time I was able to induce other landlords to… give me their houses to manage.” Payton’s parlay of his initial gambit into the creation of the hugely successful (even by today’s stan­dards) Afro-American Realty Company flooded Harlem with blacks. Remembered now as the father of Harlem, Payton also helped give rise to a host of other black property management firms. Their success had as much to do with business savvy as with white landlords’ customary readiness to jack up rents for black clients.

Not all of Harlem’s older residents were happy with the new neighbors. Anderson quotes one of them: “Can nothing be done to put a restriction on the invasion of the Negro into Harlem? At one time it was a pleasure to ride on the… elevated. Now you in­variably have a colored person sitting beside you.… Why cannot we have Jim Crow cars for these people?” One white Harlemite sug­gested that his fellow landed gentry erect 25-foot fences to protect them from the very sight of the invading black hordes. But as frequently happens here in the land of the uprooted and the home of the highest bid­der, mean green won out over neighborhood purity in the end.

The community that transplanted itself to Harlem contained every human type im­aginable. From the Tenderloin came your smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers, your pickpockets, peddlers, panhandlers, thugs, pimps, and pushers; all your big moneymakers. With them they brought the nightclub owners and innovative musicians who were to make Harlem so chic and alluring in the ’20s. What the nouveau bougies who represented Harlem’s educated and/or mercantile classes brought with them besides new money was moral propriety and, when it came to the masses, an attitude. As in that expressed by black businessman John B. Nail, explaining why his class hired European servants: “If there is one thing the negro of the servant class doesn’t know it is that the color of his skin doesn’t make him the equal of his master. You know what a fresh colored servant is in a white family? Just imagine the hell that would be raised by a fresh colored servant in a colored family.”

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Anderson’s digs unearthed tons of quirky quotes like these. But they also led him to irritating excesses. He heaps in whole para­graphs of reference material where a few quotes or a summary would do, and he fa­vors the obit page when it comes to trans­mitting biographical information. And why are there so many lists in his book? I mean we’re talking a building occupants list, a list of churches, a list of preachers, a list of boxers, a list of bars, a list of popular period­icals, a list of Harlem notables, a list of dead Harlem notables, a list of occupations, a grocery list, even a list of bootleg liquor ingredients, fer chrissakes.

As Anderson moves toward the ’50s, his material gets skimpier, his aims more dif­fuse, his organization more scattershot. Fascinated by Harlem’s cavalcade of celebri­ties, he ignores the everyday people of the community. Since more than a few folk who lived there in the ’30s and ’40s are still alive, I have to wonder why some of their stories aren’t included. And Anderson’s cutoff date of 1950 seems like a panglossian move to avoid tainting his glitzy portrayal of Harlem with what heroin turned it into — which is some horrorshow. By ignoring Harlem’s pre­sent, Anderson has written not popular his­tory but popular showbiz romance. And to a certain extent the same could be said of Lewis, even given his iconoclasm and sophis­tication.

The two books share a failing: both Lewis and Anderson refuse to analyze where the historical myth of Harlem fits within the context of Afro-American reality in the 1980s. For contemporary Afro-American professionals and intellectuals, the Harlem of legend is at best a Utopian cultural myth: about the segregated but self-contained black community of the past, isolated from white America but strong enough to sustain itself thanks to the talent caged within its boundaries. Unlike Du Bois and Johnson, however, today’s black braintrusts don’t have to work or live in the “black com­munity”; thanks to affirmative action they can braindrain themselves out to the highest corporate bidder and cop a squat in the suburbs. Which is cool up to a point. Except that what remains unresolved for this gener­ation’s upwardly mobile blacks is just how much assimilation they dare risk at the expense of alienation from the Harlems of today, especially given that the terms of this assimilation are enforced only by fragile tol­erance and easily eradicated legislation. Because in the face of Harlem’s decay, the question is this: Just where do you go when you can’t go home again and baby it’s cold outside? ■




Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neill — those are just a few of the famous subjects Edward Steichen captured with his camera as Condé Nast’s chief photographer from 1923 to 1937. The Whitney’s new exhibition, “Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition,” brings together 45 works from that period, including celebrity portraits and fashion photographs taken for Vanity Fair and Vogue as well as photos for advertising campaigns and those that showcase his love of the natural world. A true pioneer, his experiments with light and form and modern sensibility continue to influence photography — especially fashion photography — today.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Dec. 6. Continues through Feb. 23, 2013


Burnt Sugar Cinefhonic Strike Force

Greg “Ironman” Tate perpetuates the late Bruce Morris’s conduction techniques in Burnt Sugar’s score for African-American filmmaker Oscar Michaeaux’s 1925 silent film Body and Soul, wherein Paul Robeson plays the double role of a sham preacher and his inventor brother. Sugar’s little big band of a lineup blends voices (Carl Hancock Rux, Abby Dobson), electronics, guitar, and horns. Tate debuts his new song project Rebellum during at 10 p.m.

Thu., Feb. 28, 8 p.m., 2013


Native Land

Dir. Leo Hurwitz & Paul Strand (1942).
Paul Robeson’s stirring narration provides the gravitas for this Pop Front indie, a heart-felt celebration of the right to engage in collective bargaining, as well as a forceful attack on what were then perceived as forms of indigenous American fascism.

Wednesdays-Fridays, 1:30 p.m. Starts: June 15. Continues through June 17, 2011


The Emperor Jones

Dir. Dudley Murphy (1933).
Paul Robeson gives his most powerful (if one-dimensional) screen performance in this well-wrought independent production of Eugene O’Neill’s play about a Pullman porter’s exercise in Caribbean manifest destiny.

Tue., Aug. 10, 3:30 & 7:50 p.m., 2010


Native Land

(Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, 1942).
Paul Robeson’s stirring narration provides suitable gravitas in this Pop Front indie, a heart-felt celebration of the right to engage in collective-bargaining, as well as a forceful attack what were perceived to be forms of indigenous American fascism.

Tue., April 21, 8 p.m., 2009


Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema at Walter Reade Theater

Homesteader-cum-author Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) was one of the earliest and most prolific African-American auteurs, but far more momentous were both the dignified, stereotype-refuting doctrine of his oeuvre and the frustrating truth that many of his race films are lost and barely remembered today. Lincoln Center’s “Faded Glory” retrospective impressively wrangles 35 rediscoveries and restorations from this revolutionary and his neglected contemporaries, including 1920’s Within Our Gates—Micheaux’s earliest surviving film, an anti-KKK corrective to The Birth of a Nation. That, among other silent greats, will be presented with a live piano accompaniment, and his 1925 masterpiece, Body and Soul (featuring Paul Robeson’s screen debut in dual roles), will benefit from a bass singer. Also of note are a new 35mm print of Spencer Williams’s folksy morality play The Blood of Jesus (perhaps the best in the series) and King Vidor’s 1929 sharecropper musical Hallelujah!, the first major studio release with both an all African-American cast and a progressive honesty about the black experience (take that, D.W. Griffith!). Perhaps the uncovering of such pioneering groundwork will be just the thing to shake up our superfluity of buppie movies, gangsta nonsense, and Tyler Perry’s monopoly on dramedies for the devout.


L.A. Story

There are first films like Citizen Kane or
, which, as radically new and fully achieved as they are, unfairly overshadow an entire oeuvre. And then there are first films, perhaps even more radical, which haunt an artist’s career not through precocious virtuosity but because they have an innocence that can never be repeated.

This second type includes Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures—impoverished productions all, shot on weekends over extended periods of time, pragmatic in their means, necessarily based on improvisation and consequently filled with rich, ingenuous mistakes. Charles Burnett’s legendary Killer of Sheep, which was finished in 1978 and, despite its enormous critical reputation, is only now getting a New York theatrical release, belongs with these.

Made while Burnett was a 33-year-old grad student at UCLA, Killer of Sheep is a study of social paralysis in South Central Los Angeles a dozen years after the Watts insurrection. The subject matter harks back to the heyday of Italian neorealism but Burnett uses the film language of experimental documentaries like In the Street, Blood of the Beasts, and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. (Like Anger, Burnett never cleared the rights to his extensive pop-music score—one reason why Killer of Sheep could not be commercially shown.) Sui generis, Killer of Sheep is an urban pastoral—an episodic series of scenes that are sweet, sardonic, deeply sad, and very funny. It’s a movie of enigmatic antics, odd juxtapositions, disorienting close-ups, and visual gags, as when a guy sitting in the front seat of a car reaches through the nonexistent windshield to retrieve the beer can perched on the hood.

Killer of Sheep has an improvised feel and a studied look—as if Burnett decided on his often unconventional camera angles and then set his mainly nonprofessional actors loose. Songs of innocence and experience collide. Even before the opening titles, the movie makes it clear that life (or maybe history) is apt to hit you upside your head. Much of the movie considers children at play, staging rock fights in a rubble-strewn lot or frisking around some derelict railroad tracks or, shot from below, jumping from roof to roof. The kids, who almost always travel in packs, have their own subculture—half seen through their imagination. A little girl affects a hangdog mask, perhaps in imitation of her father, Stan (Henry G. Sanders).

The movie has an unusual protagonist: Depressed, dreamy, always worried looking, Stan works in an abattoir (hence the title) and has two kids and a pretty wife (Kaycee Moore). She loves him but he’s curiously unresponsive—at one point they dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” then drift apart. Stan doesn’t smile and he has trouble sleeping. For much of the movie, he wanders impassively from one scene to another. To the degree that the movie has a narrative, it largely concerns Stan’s ongoing attempt to get his friend’s car together. In one lengthy scene, the guys buy a $15 replacement engine—the motor is an image of futility so visceral that, rolling through the movie, it positively ungathers its moss.

On the one hand, Stan’s neighborhood is a wasteland—devoid of commerce, isolated, and entropic. On the other, it’s filled with vitality or at least everyday madness. People scowl and scrap their way through ramshackle lives, wandering in and out of each other’s business—as when two guys dart on-screen lugging a stolen TV. The verbal jousting is often superb. (Language police should note that the zesty vernacular includes ample use of the N-word.) Neighborhood jivesters try to bring Stan in on their criminal exploits but he’s stubbornly uninterested. “I’m not poor,” he insists, “I give away things to the Salvation Army sometimes.”

Stan is just about the only character in the movie who has a job—and it’s the fact of the job, even more than its nature, that seems to oppress him. Intermittently he’s shown at work, hosing down the slaughterhouse killing floor. At one point, Burnett uses Paul Robeson’s pop front anthem “The House I Live In” to segue from an empty lot to the abattoir; Robeson’s “Going Home” provides the background for the sheep headed toward death. The bluntness with which Burnett employs music hardly detracts from the effect. This, as Little Walter reminds us, is a “mean old world.” Stan’s job brings him in intimate contact with the fate awaiting all living things. He is the reality principle. The only time he smiles—or nearly smiles—is when chasing those sheep who have dimly realized what might be in store for them.

However original, Killer of Sheep has had only a subterranean influence— primarily on Burnett’s UCLA colleagues (Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Julie Dash), who were surely inspired by his ability to get the movie made. More recently, there have been the movies of Southern regionalist David Gordon Green, whose 2000 debut, George Washington, mined much of its eccentricity from Burnett’s film. But not even Burnett seems to have followed through on his youthful explorations; it was seven years before he completed a second feature, not that he has ever ceased working.

In the time since Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s made several mangled or unreleased commercial productions, a number of striking telefilms on African-American history, and one fully realized, exceedingly unusual, and underappreciated feature, the 1990 To Sleep With Anger. Given this stoical tenacity, it’s hard not to see Stan as a prophetic projection of the filmmaker.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the two great independent features of the late ’70s were
Killer of Sheep
and Eraserhead. Perhaps when someone writes the reception history of American independent cinema, it will be explained how and when Killer of Sheep—which had its original screenings at museums and underground showcases—came to be considered not just a good but a great movie, placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1990.

Clearly foreign film festivals had something to do with it—the movie won a prize at Berlin in 1981—as did the various black film series that booked it for years. It’s striking that, as a 16mm production, Killer of Sheep first appeared in the context of avant-garde cinema. When it opened in New York in November 1978, as part of the Whitney Museum’s ongoing New American Filmmakers series, The New York Times saw it as a study in “monotony and alienation,” and scored the filmmaker’s “arty detachment.”

That apparently was the movie’s lone notice. The closest Killer of Sheep received to a review in the Voice was the blurb filed by a callow part-time third-stringer:

Charles Burnett calls his well- observed first feature, made with nonactors in Watts, an ethnographic film. More a succession of linked images and anecdotes than a narrative, its power is in its accumulation of details and gesture. Burnett withholds judgment on his scuffling, self-absorbed characters, using a score that runs the gamut from Paul Robeson to Dinah Washington to Big Boy Crudup to comment on their lives. His hero works in a slaughterhouse but the film leaves little doubt that the real “killer of sheep” is America.

I hadn’t seen the movie again until this past month. As fresh and observational as it was 30 years ago, Killer of Sheep seems even more universal now. Today, I’d change my blurb to note that the killer of sheep isn’t only America, but life.


Like No Other Night

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” For starters, Dr. Ruth Westheimer sat at the table next to mine. And how about cross-dressing Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, resplendent in a matzo-print dress? Not to mention Al Franken, via video, doing his best Paul Robeson on “Go Down, Moses.”

Michael Dorf’s fifth annual Downtown Seder, which gathered conspicuously Jewish musicians, comedians, and public figures, was not your forefathers’ ritual dinner. Then again, most Passover seders are part memorial to Jewish slaves in Egypt, part celebration of their liberation, and mostly musical theater, played out through familial dysfunction. So this event was traditional—the extended family being the hipper-than-thou Jewish arts community.

Producer Dorf, a wandering Jewish impresario since leaving active involvement in the Knitting Factory, welcomed folks into his latest Promised Land—a spacious mezzanine ballroom in the former Bank of New York building on Wall Street. (He plans to open a new venue, the Art Exchange, there in 2006.)

Tables were set up in neat rows, plates arrayed with bitter herbs, lamb shanks, and other customary edible signifiers. Events mostly adhered to the official Passover playbook, the Haggadah. The many shapes, sizes, and stylistic inclinations of Jewish talent seemed on display: a diasporan variety show. Galeet Dar-dashti’s candle-lighting blessing was full of Middle Eastern inflection. Debbie Friedman strummed through a folk-fest-styled sanctification. Margot Leverett led the Klezmer Mountain Boys in a bluegrass-tinged “Had Gadya.” Jewish plight was conflated with African American struggle, literally (Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields’s rendition of “All Freedom in Me”) and figuratively (Vanessa Hidary’s rant on Jewish identity, which sounded like a Def Poetry Jam audition). There were clever adaptations (Pharaoh’s Daughter telling the Passover story to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody”), touching moments (Neshama Carlebach’s soulful version of a song she learned from her father, a rabbi), and virtuosic displays (David Krakauer’s mealtime clarinet playing).

Mostly, arch comedy ruled. The duo What I Like About Jew whittled it all down to Cliffs Notes with their tune’s refrain: “They tried to kill us/We survived/Let’s eat.” For all its charm and high spirits, the night suggested an Eleventh Plague: sarcasm (served with full dinner).


Aphasic Instinct

Matthew Sharpe’s The Sleeping Father is two novels in one—an imploding-family masterpiece every bit as heart-piercing as The Corrections, and a stylistically thrilling inquiry into the weight of words. It’s a treasure-house of gleaming deadpan sentences (sample chapter-spanning juxtaposition: “They had a nice time on the couch until the sun went down,” followed by “Three hours before summer arrived in California, it arrived in Connecticut”). It’s sad, to the degree that this reader instinctively closed his eyes right at the moment it became clear something very ugly was about to happen. It’s resplendent with aching absurdities, word salads, inspired semicolon deployment, golden-eared teenage monologues. It’s the best thing I hope to read all year—and if it isn’t, this will be a very good year indeed.

The titular not-all-there paterfamilias is Bernard Schwartz, a divorced copywriter whose unwitting intake of a contraindicated drug sends him into a coma. When he emerges, his speech is a mess of gnomic utterances and weirdly poetic circumlocutions (asking for a cigarette: “Get me—lung—fire—white—smoke—tube”). Sharpe effortlessly shifts between the perspectives of those in and around the Schwartz family, but his most indelible creation is Chris, Bernie’s loving 17-year-old son. Paul Robeson fan, would-be screen saver mogul, and inheritor of his father’s formerly flourishing sense of irony, Chris alternately jokes and lashes out in hyperarticulate bursts. Endearing and infuriating, he possesses a knee-jerk misogyny (especially toward his father’s doc, Lisa) that barely masks a confused plea for intimacy.

His best friend, Frank Dial (“one of five blacks matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians”), has “a word for everything, and often not a nice one”; Chris, for his part, has “a stern principle about accuracy and honesty in speech that he said he took pride in not living up to.” Frank diligently keeps a notebook entitled Everything in the World, in which he records the curiosities and outrages of their suburban universe—e.g., Things that look like things that you already know what they look like. When a racist bully destroys it, Frank starts a fresh one: Everything I Hate. (Sharpe’s beguiling 2000 debut novel, relating the sentimental education of a sixth-grader who moves to New York with her female teacher/lover, was brightly called Nothing Is Terrible.)

As Sharpe’s young protagonists—and here we include Chris’s sober-minded younger sister, Cathy—muddle through their assorted griefs, they all look to language for answers. Frank’s book—any book—is a way of containing the world, coordinates stretched across the void. Chris wishes his father would dispense fatherly advice, the kind that “came in numbered lists and started with words like ‘Always,’ or ‘Never,’ or ‘Remember,’ or ‘Son.’ ”

Words promise security, but they always fall short. Thus from the sibilant traffic jam of an opening (“Chris Schwartz’s father’s Prozac dosage must have been incorrect”) to the “brain damage round-robin” that Chris imagines sharing with his father, Sharpe boldly foregrounds both the antic possibilities and million immutable agonies of language, so that form and feeling shadow each other across the pages. He uses repetition, incremental variation, go-for-broke catalogs—as incantation, litany, curse, symptom; as infinitely extendable punchline. In one of the book’s sharpest scenes, Chris attempts to teach his father the surrealist game of exquisite corpse (“It’s for your aphasia and my amusement”): “How this works is I name a part of speech, like noun or verb or adjective, then we each write one of whatever part of speech I just named at the top of our strips of paper.”

The end result, when the players uncover their entries, should be a pair of zany sentences. But the word-impoverished Bernie “neither understood Chris’s instructions nor could he identify the different parts of speech,” and they resort to “a modified version . . . in which they took turns saying nouns to each other.” Later, Chris tries to clarify between the general and the specific. After divvying up the universe into 31 categories, he tries to explain how a tree can be both a category and an individual thing. He advises that Bernie point as well as talk. “Another way to do it would be to give the tree a specific name.” “Like what?” “Shirley.” Father and son embark on an orgy of naming—animals, blades of grass, houses, clouds, and “When the sky was dark, they named the darkness.” It’s my favorite literary take on the divine prerogative since the increasingly forgetful denizens of Macondo started putting instructions on their animals.

But failure is beautiful, too, and in the end it’s all we have. Even as the characters strive for precision, meanings can be elusive. In a mind-bending move, Sharpe slyly exploits Bernie’s part-of-speech confusion, essentially infecting the reader with it. Try to pin down the parts of speech as this chapter-capping sentence unfolds: “It was real awkward divorced family comforting.” The Sleeping Father is genuine sui generis genius comic family novel writing.